As the Mount Airy gondola ascended the mountain of North Carolina High School golf royalty, each Granite Bear had moments where they thought their wildest dreams were within reach.
For senior leader Christopher Dorsett, the Northwest Conference opener signaled things were changing. Bishop McGuinness had won the conference and state championship every year since Dorsett started at Mount Airy, but the Bears began conference play by upsetting the Villains on their home golf course. In the end, it turned out to be not much of an upset.
Freshman Nabyant Wagner knew this season could become historic after Mount Airy clinched the conference championship at Cross Creek Country Club. The Bears outlasted Bishop McGuinness by two strokes throughout the entire season, and Wagner felt it was the type of momentum that could carry the team all the way to a state championship.
So when it finally came time to compete on the biggest stage, the Bears felt confident with their chances to bring home the title. There were small moments throughout the regular season that helped Dorsett, Wagner, freshman Sam Nester and junior Reagan Fitzgibbons create this belief, but the foundations of Mount Airy’s 2016 state championship really began to forge two years prior.
“I remember when we were in seventh grade,” freshman Sam Nester said. “Me and Nabyant talked about how we had a shot to win state when we were freshmen because of just how deep our team would be.”
This faith in each other powered the Bears over the two-day event and a three-shot win over the Community School of Davidson to become the NCHSAA 1A state champions. It was the first team state title in Mount Airy golf history, and their ability to share it with the Mount Airy community made it all the more special.
“The whole city was behind us,” Fitzgibbons said. “It felt like we had a lot of people come to support us at the course, but we also had so many people reaching out to us telling us good luck and stuff. We felt like we were playing for more than just the golf team.”
A mixed start
The Bears arrived at Long Leaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines on Sunday. None of the Mount Airy golfers had ever played at the course hosting the 1A 2016 state championship, so they wanted to make sure they got a good practice round in before the competition started on Monday.
However, Mount Airy struggled on Sunday figuring out the course and especially its tough greens. Head Coach Mark Hiatt admitted he was nervous after watching his boys struggle in practice, but the Bears weren’t the only team hard-pressed in Southern Pines.
“I don’t think we really got the speeds of the greens down all week,” Hiatt said. “But everyone struggled, and I think we were able to deal with it better than any other team there.”
Jared Pendleton had to withdraw from the competition due to a leg injury, giving Mount Airy the minimum four golfers left. Still, Mount Airy got off to a blistering start on Monday and were nine-over-par as a team through the front nine.
They couldn’t maintain that pace, but the Bears went back to their hotel rooms after the first day with a four-stroke lead over Lincoln Charter. Things were looking good, until Fitzgibbons received a phone call that delivered some jaw-dropping news.
“A friend called me and said Community School of Davidson just got done and they were seven shots ahead of us,” Fitzgibbons said. “Patten (Williams) shot two-under for the first round and he was the last guy to finish for them. I remember telling the team and looking around the room at a lot of stunned faces.”
Mount Airy went from in the driver’s seat to staring at a sizable deficit, but the philosophy didn’t change as the Bears arrived back at the golf course for the Tuesday’s final round.
“I told the team we just couldn’t press,” Coach Hiatt said. “If we go out there and play our game, which is smart golf that doesn’t take too many risks, we were going to win this thing.”
Hiatt’s promise proved true as the Bears played sound golf throughout Tuesday’s action. All four golfers shot in the 70s, and just like the regular season, they each had moments of realization that they were becoming champions.
Dorsett finished the tournament at seven-over par and fourth-place individually. He turned in rounds of 76 and 73 and started to register how close Mount Airy was to a state championship walking up to the 15th hole.
“I parred the 14th and then I talked to Reagan’s dad,” Dorsett said. “We figured that we had come back and we won the front by six shots and we were just down by one. I knew we were finishing strong and just said, ‘let’s do this.’”
Dorsett closed with three pars and a birdie. The terrific close was a fitting end for the elder statesman on the team.
Nester got rolling on Tuesday after a double-bogey on hole six. He could feel things slipping away, but he bounced back to par the next two holes. It was just the start to a tremendous run as he parred 10 of the final 12 holes.
“I just could feel my whole day change after getting a par on seven and eight. I just played way better from that point on,” Nester said.
After shooting a team-worst 80 on Monday, Wagner bounced back in a big way on Tuesday with a 73. He finished tied for 10th place overall and parred all but one hole in the second round.
“I knew that if we were going to win this thing, I was just going to have to play a lot better on Tuesday,” Wagner said. “It was all mental, getting back to playing the way I knew I could.”
Finally, there was Fitzgibbons, who moved up to Mount Airy’s No. 1 slot midway through the year. He wasn’t able to relax on Tuesday, pairing with individual champion Patten Williams from Community School of Davidson, and he admittedly struggled through the first 15 holes of Tuesday’s round.
But Fitzgibbons talked to his dad and coach at the 15th hole and was assured Mount Airy still had a chance to win the state title. Like all three of his teammates, the junior rattled off an impressive finish, going birdie, par and par to clinch the title as Mount Airy’s final golfer of the day. He finished the tournament nine-over-par and tied for 10th overall.
The stretch-run proved to be the difference, as the Granite Bears outshot the four golfers from the Community School of Davidson by four strokes over the final three holes. The final scored read 610-613 in favor of Mount Airy.
“It was so impressive watching those guys finish,” Coach Hiatt said. “You don’t just stand up on those tees at the end without any nerves.”
Cherishing the title
When it was all over, Mount Airy became the first traditional public school to win the 1A boys golf team championship since West Montgomery in 2010. The Bears ended a five-year run by Bishop McGuinness while also keeping the trophy inside the Northwest Conference.
The celebrations aren’t over either. After buzzing their hair like they all promised before the season started, Coach Hiatt included, the team will be recognized in front of the school board later this week. The Bears are slowly getting used to the idea of being state champions.
These golfers legitimately believed they would be crowned state champions for the past two years, but surprise still overpowered any other emotion when they finally hoisted the trophy, and the little moments along the way made it a season they’ll never forget.
“I think I’ll always remember the bus ride home,” Coach Hiatt said. “I’m sitting up front driving and I hear Sam in the back say, ‘Guys, we’re actually state champions. We did it.’ Sam then got them pumped up, again.”
“It was just that type of year. A fun and easy ride for me the whole time.”
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16